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Building a Trail at the Top of the World: Working Hard at High Altitude

Fishlake National Forest, Utah, 2005
by Don Miles, PIT Volunteer

Advertised as a tough 2-week trail-building project “at the top of the world,” the Fishlake NF PIT project took place among wildflowers in full bloom in the Sound of Music Tushar Mountains in central Utah. PIT volunteers in Week 2 arrived expecting to get a glimpse of Julie Andrews. Most of the PIT crew assembled in Marysvale. After brief introductions, Bob Leonard, the FS archaeologist and project leader, led the caravan to the Big Flat base camp at about 10,500-foot elevation. Ken Haber, a longtime PIT volunteer from Arizona, had set up the camp’s amenities previously and was there to greet us. After we set up our camp, Bob gave us the full introduction. Joan and Mark garnered the long-distance award from Alberta, Canada. Other volunteers included Michael (from Minnesota), Doug (full-time RVer), and Mel and me (from Utah). 

We then set out for the trailhead where we commenced our adventure. I was huffing, puffing, and wheezing up the trail. Joan and Mark were simply strolling up the hill with no apparent side effects, even though they were carrying lots of tools. Bob, Mel, and Michael humored me by stopping and pretending to be tired, so I didn’t feel bad, being so out of shape. They also stopped to look at the elk and mountain goats, which were fun to look at, but mainly they gave me another excuse to stop and rest. Bob is thoughtful that way, even pointing out a rare flower once so I could rest, when I was so tired from lifting the crow bar that I wondered if I would pass out from exhaustion.

As we worked on that first day, Bob immediately assessed who could work and who wasn’t worth much, which was pretty easy to judge, because Joan and Mark were digging so much dirt they were hard to see under the flying debris. Mel and Ken were experienced trail makers and had a fair amount of dirt-flinging experience too. Michael and Bob were trying not to laugh at me in public, for what little I was doing. Bob finally looked at my girth and deduced I could leverage a crow bar better than most. So he had me bounce on the crow bar to pry rocks from the trail. I knew some day all those health food candy bars and doughnuts would come in handy.

Doug worked with every tool there on that trail. He parked at the trailhead to be closer to the work. After a rain, he often returned to work while the rest of us were marooned at camp. By the end of the week, Doug was getting tired. Once I headed out early and had a half-mile head start on him in the mile walk to the trailhead; he beat me there by only 15 minutes. As the week wore on, the crew got hardened into the work, their muscles flexing and stretching their sleeves. I was actually starting to grow a callus on my belly, where I would flop across the crow bar.

Later in the week, Mark and I carried a post to the top of the pass and the goal of our portion of the trail this year. On the way up, I huffed and puffed pretty hard. Mark was clearly affected neither by the altitude nor the work. As he dragged me and the post up the trail, he chatted normally. When he finally got to the top of the pass, he had to take a deep breath or two before he could start talking normally again. My breathing returned to normal after only three days, and then I started talking normally again too.

Dinner at the Big Rock Candy Saloon—I mean café—was a real treat and a highlight of the trip and where we all met the beautiful Swedish woman that Bob claimed was his wife. How he ever got a woman that gorgeous to pose as his wife all during the dinner is beyond me. It also happened to be Bob’s birthday that night, or so we thought. To celebrate, a fancy dessert was delivered to our table. Bob gazed at the floor, embarrassed. He mentioned this was the sixth celebration of his birthday this year (a growing PIT tradition). PIT volunteers on Bob’s projects are never constrained by details—like this was August, and Bob’s birthday is in November. 

I think I speak for all of us when I say we can’t thank Bob enough for letting us work on his trail and for the wonderful group he called in. I hope we can all come back next year. I know I’m trying to stay in shape for it by leaning on the table more this year, to keep that belly callus in shape for next year’s work on the crow bar.
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